REVIEW: The Stray Birds – ‘Magic Fire’

13700190_1006772669372261_932160287549204657_nThose who attended their shows in the UK last year will know all about The Stray Birds. They were considered by many to be the highlight of last year’s Cambridge Folk Festival. The Stray Birds are Maya de Vitry, Charlie Muench and Oliver Craven, and they return with a new album ‘Magic Fire’, their first since the 2014 release of ‘Best Medicine’.

Their stage show is based upon tight melodic harmonies and the use of multiple instruments that showcase the band’s classically trained music background. To date however, they have always kept the song writing and production in house. It’s almost been a type of cottage industry for the band. The previous album was largely acoustic but impressed many with its bluegrass and traditional country sounds. For the first time the new album contains a fuller “big band” sound that should take them onto the next level.

The production duties have been seconded to Larry Campbell. There really couldn’t have been anyone more suitable. Campbell, who is himself a multi instrumentalist and has worked with luminaries such as Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and The Black Crowes, has added a completely new and fresh aspect to The Stray Birds’ music. We still have the impeccable vocal arrangements and the melodies but for the first time a full sound, whilst allowing the traditional instruments to breathe. This is Americana at its finest. The wonderful organs and fiddles accompanied by the occasional blast of electric guitar and the trio’s searing vocals contribute to an album that is already topping the Americana charts in the US.

De Vitry and Craven share lead vocals and the album opens with de Vitry and an acoustic guitar on ‘Shining In The Distance’ before the three part harmonies kick in. The gradual introduction of the instruments signify the change in direction and the guitar is joined by fiddle and heavy pounding beats that put Cambell’s stamp on the record. A perfect introduction to a project that takes this band to higher planes.

The most commercial track on the album and their next single ‘Third Day In A Row’ is led by Craven’s vocals. It’s a song that in a fair world would propel this band to a much wider audience. It is also a song that exudes optimism. “It’s a third day in a row that you have seen the sun come up”. It’s vibrant and punchy and pretty much everything that the band wouldn’t have contemplated previously.

The good vibes remain with ‘Sabrina’. It’s a song that is already a mainstay in their live shows. Heavy on the fiddle and as close to a hoedown as The Stray Birds have ventured.

‘Radio’ has a retro, almost hippy feel to it with de Vitry’s vocals dominating, and ‘Where Do You Come From’ almost exclusively features vocals from Craven in a song that was written by Charlie Muench.

The first ballad on the collection, ‘Fossil’ is a fiddle-led delight that deals with a relationship that has fizzled out. “I’m out here looking for the fossil of the day I met you. I want to hold it in my hand and feel how little we knew. How much we wanted to”.

‘Hands Of Man’ is pure bluegrass. Three part harmonies and fiddles dominating this very traditional, rootsy song that is more akin to the sound that we previously associated with the band. Traditionalists will also be in seventh heaven with ‘Somehow’. Pedal Steel and a waltz beat giving way to swirling fiddles. Very retro and very satisfying.

The same instruments are utilised in ‘Mississippi Pearl’ although this is a ballad that has the Larry Campbell magic touch. The ability to retain the roots feel combined with the modern production values add significantly to a song that has de Vitry in melancholy mode with her vocals.

The mood lightens with ‘All The News’, a swaying foot tapper that has the added attraction of an organ solo. It has a very retro feel and easily the most soulful of the songs on offer here.

‘When I Die’ is the showcase for the bands three part harmonies. “When I die, lay me down by this tree, the tree with the deepest roots”. It completes an album that signifies a new sound for The Stray Birds. It’s easily their best to date and we can’t wait to see how this will be brought to life in their forthcoming stage shows. They are due to visit the UK again next month. They will be appearing at 14 venues throughout the country and will be visiting locations that are not usually on the musical tourist map.  Be sure to check them out.